“You better buckle up,” Kurt Cobain’s mother said to him upon first hearing Nirvana’s Nevermind on her living room stereo, “because you are not ready for this.” Me and however many million other kids were, of course, more than ready. We were hungry, eager to identify, with no real notion as to what despair fuels such inspired, unholy, transcendent pop cacophony. Cobain was gone before we knew what hit us.
It is the despair, above all, that is the subject of Brett Morgan’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. This is not biography in any conventional sense. Exposition is largely, smartly relayed via archival materials and the tremendous wealth of diaries, drawings, music video outtakes, home movies and audio recordings entrusted to Morgan by the keepers of the Cobain estate. There are new interviews, but they are used sparingly, photographed in low light, sometimes framed in profile, and the subjects are few in number. We don’t hear from famous friends or collaborators or cultural commentators. Morgan keeps it in the family, speaking only with Cobain’s parents and sister, his first girlfriend, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and, yes, Courtney Love. And that’s it. Most of what we see and hear is drawn from Cobain’s personal effects, the journaling and the drawings sewn together in a highly inventive manner that feels true to the spirit in which they were originally crafted. In some places Morgan employs animated reenactments that elegantly invoke a gloom and wonder that feels particular to the Pacific Northwest. He uses Cobain’s music as interpreted by Nirvana and others in unpredictable, resonant ways. True to its name, Montage of Heck is an intricate weave chronicling a life that seems to have always been perched upon the edge of some personal abyss. It’s an often brilliant movie. It is not a fun movie.
The trajectory itself is familiar: divorce, medication for hyperactivity, an adolescence spent breaking windows, smoking weed, and stealing booze. There’s an awful story of virginity loss and a first suicide attempt. In these stories we trace not only Cobain’s psychic fragility but also something of the resources for his art and personal politics. The first half or so of Montage of Heck feels guided by a musical sensibility that’s arguably akin to the darkness and exhilaration of Nirvana’s music, but the second half is deeply mimetic of Cobain’s more private desolation, perhaps to a fault. We dive long and deep into crudely made videos of Cobain and Love in their wreck of a home, playing, babbling semi-coherently. Love seems very pleased with her breasts. Eventually Love is pregnant and still the flow of drugs appears to continue. Eventually Frances Bean is born and there are questions as to whether or not the parents should have custody. Will fatherhood save Cobain from self-destruction? We know the answer, but still brace ourselves as Cobain’s life winnows down to a space in which only he is left, and then not even he. I wonder if this last section could be too much for some viewers. It’s too much for me, and Cobain kind of meant everything to me when he killed himself. But I admire Montage of Heck, and, for all the superfluous rock star profiles in this world, I think we might need this one.